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  • Patrick Durkin

Private Text Messages Dispel Prehn’s Claims for Staying on NRB

Updated: Oct 29

I thought of George Orwell in late September as three members of Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board figuratively gang-tackled fellow member Marcy West for again urging Fred Prehn to resign his post, now 18 months past its expiration.


Why Orwell? Well, because the “1984” author is often miscredited for this line: “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it hates those who speak it.” Actually, a right-wing writer named Selwyn Duke crafted that truism, ironically capturing the NRB’s ill spirit.


Wisconsin’s seven-citizen NRB sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources, with the governor appointing members to staggered six-year, date-specific terms. At least that was the Legislature’s intention when creating the NRB in 1967, and 95% of its appointees have followed that intent. Of 60 NRB appointees the past 55 years, only Prehn, James Tiefenthaler in 2003, and Steve Willett in 2004, ignored their exit date. Gov. Scott Walker appointed Prehn, and Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed Tiefenthaler and Willett.


West, an appointee of Gov. Tony Evers, first told Prehn at the NRB’s June 2021 meeting that his presence was awkward. Prehn’s term had expired eight weeks earlier, and yet he remained Board chair and set its agenda.


Prehn’s presence blocks Evers’ appointees from gaining a 4-3 majority. Instead, Walker’s appointees still hold that 4-3 edge four years after he lost the November 2018 election to Evers. The GOP-controlled Legislature hasn’t voted on 164 of Evers’ appointees to various state boards. So much for our democracy’s peaceful transfer of power.


At the Board’s Sept. 28 meeting, West again urged Prehn to resign after reading about court-released text messages that contradict Prehn’s public claims that his squatter status is dutiful, not political. Much like earlier texts and emails Prehn had to share, these latest texts showed his political motives emerging six months before his term expired.


On Oct 28, 2020, Prehn texted Milwaukee attorney Jake Curtis, Walker’s former chief legal counselor at the DNR: “My term is done in May (2021), but I've been told by the legislators (they’re) not going to confirm anybody (to replace him).”


West said Prehn’s texts “blew her away” and chastised him for disrespecting fellow Board members. “The texts that were revealed are not funny,” West said.


Among other things, Prehn’s texts disparaged Evers’ NRB nominees. On May 3, 2021, lobbyist Lane Ruhland with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce texted Prehn: “I got a glimpse at the resumes of some potential new (NRB members). We NEED you, maybe more than ever in that spot. You let me know what I can do to help. You’ve been an incredible champion, and we will be screwed without you.”


Prehn responded, “Yep, there’s some real radicals,” and he told Ruhland: “I’ll see if I can hang on till Becky (Kleefisch wins the governor’s race). … It’s a tall order because I will be persona non grata down in Madison. Which doesn’t surprise me or really bother me, but I’m gonna catch a lot of flak if I stay seated.”


Radicals, huh? Sharon Adams, Evers’ replacement for Julie Anderson (who stepped down when her term ended May 1, 2021), has done little except warm her NRB chair. What about Sandra Dee Naas, the woman Prehn is blocking? Put it this way: If you plunked two raccoon carcasses on a table and said, “Skin these,” Naas would skin and stretch hers while Prehn pondered his first cut.


As West rebuked him Sept. 28, Prehn fidgeted, rubbed his temples, and fingered his smartphone. That’s typical. Whenever West speaks at NRB meetings, Prehn routinely stares at the ceiling or leaves the room.


Before Prehn could respond to West, however, Board member Terry Hilgenberg cut off discussion, claiming West’s concerns weren’t NRB business. Board chair Greg Kazmierski agreed, saying West’s comments weren’t pertinent. Kazmierski and Hilgenberg are Walker appointees.


Nervously avoiding eye contact, Prehn told West, “Don’t believe everything you read, Marcy.”


Huh? West shouldn’t believe Prehn’s text messages? Well, you decide:


On April 4, 2021, Prehn texted former DNR chief warden Todd Schaller: “Laugh my ass off. … I might stick around for a while. ... I'll be like a turd in water up there.” In a follow-up text to Schaller on April 12, 2021, Prehn wrote: “If I stick around (until January 2022) I can help vote Kaz in as chair. :-)”


Which he did, of course. And on Jan. 20, Prehn texted a friend to express hope the Wisconsin Supreme Court would “allow me to remain around till the (November 2022) election.”


We wouldn’t know Prehn’s true thoughts, of course, if not for a lawsuit by the Midwest Environmental Advocates that forced him to submit his iPad and cell phone to the firm Digital Intelligence for a forensic audit, which included recovering texts Prehn deleted.


He previously denied such text messages even existed. When these latest texts became public records Sept. 23, we learned Prehn regularly sought advice, support and ego-inflation from his political orbit, much like an insecure husband asking his wife if his old suit makes him look fat.


On Nov. 11, 2020, Prehn texted Walker: “I’m wondering if you think it’s improper for me to stay on until somebody’s confirmed. I know it's been done in the past, but is it really the proper thing to do?”


Walker replied: “If possible, stay on. Any voices that can counter their racial (sic) view of the world are good.” (We assume Walker meant “radical,” the vogue label in both parties for smearing political opponents.)


Prehn’s texts also blamed others for his extended stay, including Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel outdoor editor Paul Smith. Even though Prehn called Smith a “political hack” in a May 25, 2021, text, he claims Smith’s criticisms forced him to stay: “Funny part was, I … was going to vacate after (the May 26) meeting. Now, not a chance. … He met the wrong guy now.”


Prehn even lied about Smith in a June 24, 2021, text to Congressman Tom Tiffany, whining: “This morning Paul Smith went after me again. Posted my dental website, which got blasted, and I had to take it down from comments.”


Not true. Smith merely urged readers in his May 23 and June 23 columns to email their thoughts to Prehn via the NRB’s DNR liaison, Laurie Ross. Besides, if folks want to contact Prehn directly, his business phone number and address are on the DNR’s website.


Prehn’s texts show he flip-flopped endlessly about staying on the NRB. In an April 29, 2021, text to Anderson, Prehn wrote: “I pity the poor guy or girl who has to sit in the audience and watch me for a while. Real politics taken hold. … They assume I’m gonna be gone May 1. But I’m clearly not going to be.”


The next day, Prehn texted a friend: “Probably gonna keep doing the chairmanship gig (until) this guy, or girl I guess from Ashland (Naas), gets confirmed. So I’ll be around for a while much to there (sic) chagrin.”


On May 10, however, Prehn texted Kazmierski: “I’m leaning toward chairing this next meeting and then a couple days later without any fanfare stepping down. I’m … a stickler for statute and process. I am being somewhat hypocritical by sitting around. ... One side of me wants to stick it to the liberals. The other side is like, you know what voters? You put Evers in, this is what you get.”


But by late June, Prehn was again staying, texting his rehearsed excuses to Rob Bohmann of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress: “I’m going to say the (the DNR) did not want a wolf hunt, and I feel obligated to stick around as long as necessary or until I’m replaced by the Senate. … Excessive regulations are coming (that will) challenge agriculture, and clean water initiatives that need to be thoroughly vetted.”


By this past January, Prehn finally quit playing the political martyr, writing: “I’ll remain as a board member, and I will effectively guarantee a conservative gets the chairmanship. Supreme court hearing is March 10. That will effectively and hopefully allow me to remain around till the (Nov. 8) election.”


It’s clear now that Prehn misspoke Sept. 28 after his buddies silenced West. Prehn meant to say: “Don’t believe anything I say publicly, Marcy. Wait to read my private texts I denied writing.”

Marcy West, foreground, urges Fred Prehn (background, hands on head) to resign from the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board at its meeting Sept. 28. — Wisconsin DNR photo

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